What is the relationship between law and grace? How can we be not under the Law and yet still be subject to God so that we obey His commandments (even if this were only the explicit ones in the New Testament)? There is a complex history of Christian thought on the matter, but it seems pretty clear that two extremes wind up in sin, if not heresy.
On the one hand, we have the problem of legalism, which Paul is addressing when he writes to the Galatians. We still have various ways of believing and acting as if what we do is what saves or justifies us. For some Christians, this salvation by works begins at the very beginning of our relationship with God. It’s represented by this free-will bumper sticker I’ve seen: “The devil votes against you. God votes for you. You cast the deciding vote.”
Others, speaking of their ongoing life with God, say that “God is my co-pilot.” I’m sure that most of those who smack this on their bumpers don’t really mean that they are the pilots and that God is relegated to co-pilotdom. But even if they mean that God is only an equal partner (a generous interpretation), such sentiments betray a belief in the salvific efficacy of human works (alright, alright, how does “the ability of works to save” sound instead?)
At other times, we don’t actually believe intellectually that our works save us, but we do believe it in our hearts, and from there it metastasizes to our hands and lips and lives. Without a constant check on our wills, we are prone, even as Christians, to believe that it is simply us doing the good things Jesus Christ does through us. I suppose that if we were healing the sick or casting out demons or raising the dead, we would remember that it is Jesus who is doing these things through us. But if He performed such miracles through us and did it on a daily basis, without faith we would grow jaded and come to believe that it was us. How much more so with the less dramatic works He routinely performs through us.
But there is an equal and opposite sin, and that is the sin of antinomianism. I find this a more overtly prevalent sin in contemporary times. Antinomianism is “anti-lawism,” and it means believing there is no longer a law that binds us. We have liberty in Christ because He has set us free. Our Christian liberty is caricatured by the misuse of the phrase, “We’re under grace, not law.” I’ve heard this countless times to justify that the Christ-trees, the trees of life, the trees of righteousness that we’re supposed to be don’t have to bear Christ’s fruits.
“Once saved, always saved, so I can do whatever I want,” is the way some Christians think and behave. We’ve been taught to hate the Law so much, which Paul says is good, that we rush into sin, thinking that because we’re not under the Law there is no Christian law to obey. We cherry pick certain Pauline verses out of context and make Paul’s teaching an occasion to sin.
How, then, can we live under grace and not the law, and yet not become law-breakers, which is to say sinners?
Paul’s answer is a simple one. I can name that doctrine in one word: love.
In love, we have Christian liberty to not be subjugated to the Law, to not be judged by it. And yet by love we perfectly keep the Law. Do we really believe we are not under any kind of Christian law? If so, then what are we to make of Jesus saying that the 2 greatest commandments (that is, laws) are to love God and love neighbor? Aren’t these commandments of Jesus found first in the Mosaic Law? Everywhere in the New Testament, from the lips of Jesus and Paul and every other inspired writer, we hear the commandments (Law) of God.
But as many commandments as God has given us are summed up in love. “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (verse 14). If you love your neighbor, you will keep the Law. If you love your neighbor, you will not covet his wife or his big screen TV or his Lexus. If you love your neighbor, you will not steal from him or lie to him or allow your ox to gore him (or dog to bite him, in modern terms). You will not defraud him or speak evil of him or gossip about him or do any of the other things the Old Testament Law forbids.
If love is doing what is best for others, then you will serve your neighbor. The love of Christ will compel you not to serve yourself in your liberty but to serve your neighbor. For if you have the love of Christ and the Spirit of Christ, then you will also serve as He came to serve and not to be served.
We Americans and American Christians confuse liberty with license. We think that being free means free to do whatever we want, but this kind of freedom is licentiousness and sin. It is most certainly not Christian love. If your liberty leads to licentiousness, then it is no liberty. You are a slave again, enslaved to sin and self! That is not Christ’s definition of liberty but bondage! You foolish Americans! Who has bewitched you?!
In love, we receive the grace of Jesus Christ, and we are under grace, which means to be under love. If we have received the gift of Jesus Christ by grace then we also receive His love. But this love must be manifest in us: we cannot say we have truly received God’s grace and love if we are not transformed by it, transformed from being law-breakers and antinomians to being law-keepers because keepers of love. It is the grace and love and Spirit of Christ in us that compel us to keep the Law, not because we think that by keeping it we are saved.
Therefore, love is the end of the Law. In the one sense of “end,” it means that the rule of the Law as a tutor and pointer to love has ended. In another sense, love is the “end” of the Law because all along it was the goal of that Law and that tutor. Once we love, we have liberty because we are free to live in love as Christ did.
Psychologists speak of flow, of being in the zone, where you have such mastery in your chosen pursuit that your have a freedom and liberty from the laws which once bound you. When you are in flow you are actually keeping those very laws, but they have become so much a part of you that you no longer count your dance steps “1-2-3-ouch! . . . 1-2-3-ouch!”
When you love with the love of Christ, the love of Christ flows and you flow. You learn to serve because you love to serve, and you love to serve because you love Christ. Therefore, love as a keeping of the Law always begins by loving God.
And what is loving God, John says, other than keeping His commandments (laws)?
If all of this is making your head and heart ache, then join the club. If you remember nothing else, then remember love. Even if you do not always understand, then love. Love is the purifier of our hearts and of our heads. Love, and you will begin to understand how grace and law relate. Love, and you will live.
Prayer: “O LORD, who hast taught us that all our doings without charity are nothing worth; Send thy Holy Ghost, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee. Grant this for thine only Son Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.”
Points for Meditation:
- To what degree do you act and think as if Christ in you is the one doing good works and to what degree as if it is you?
- What is one way specific situation in which God is calling you to act in love? As you consider this situation, ask God for His grace, remember to act in love, and give thanks when you see Christ working through you, even in small ways.
Resolution: I resolve to consciously act in love today. I resolve further that when I act in love I will immediately give Christ the glory for His grace in me.
Moses, Aaron, and the Ten Commandments – U. S. Public Domain